Category: Modeling

New Amazon Features: Translating the Bookstore Experience On-line

January 12th, 2006 — 4:08pm

Ama­zon is offer­ing new Text Stats on “Read­abil­ity” and “Com­plex­ity”, and a Con­cor­dance fea­ture, both part of their com­pre­hen­sive effort to trans­late the phys­i­cal book[store] expe­ri­ence into the online medium. The new fea­tures build on exist­ing capa­bil­i­ties such as Look Inside, Wish­lists, Rec­om­men­da­tions, Edi­to­r­ial and Cus­tomer Reviews, Cita­tions, and Bet­ter Together to cre­ate a com­pre­hen­sive book buy­ing expe­ri­ence. In the same way that book­stores include kiosks to allow cus­tomers access meta­data and other infor­ma­tion on the books for sale in the imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment, Ama­zon is offer­ing on-line capa­bil­i­ties that sim­u­late many of the activ­i­ties of book buy­ers in a book­store, such as check­ing the table of con­tents and indexes, flip­ping through a book to read pas­sages, or look at select pages.
The new fea­tures appear on prod­uct pages for books, as well as other kinds of works. [Try this intro to FRBR for a look at the con­cep­tual hier­ar­chy dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing works from items, and it’s impli­ca­tions for com­mon user tasks like find­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing, select­ing, and obtain­ing items.]
Text Stats may be exper­i­men­tal, but it’s hard to feel com­fort­able with their def­i­n­i­tion of com­plex­ity, which is: “A word is con­sid­ered “com­plex” if it has three or more syl­la­bles.” To point out the obvi­ous, Eng­lish includes plenty of sim­ple three syl­la­ble words — like “banana” — and some very com­plex one syl­la­ble words — “time” “thought” and “self” for exam­ple.
The Text Stats on Read­abil­ity seem a bit bet­ter thought through. That’s nat­ural, given their ground­ing in research done out­side Amazon’s walls. But with clear evi­dence that US edu­ca­tion stan­dards vary con­sid­er­ably across states and even indi­vid­ual dis­tricts, and also evi­dence that those stan­dards change over time, I have to ques­tion the value of Read­abil­ity stats long term. I sup­pose that isn’t point…
The Con­cor­dance fea­ture is eas­ier to appre­ci­ate; per­haps it doesn’t attempt to inter­peret or pro­vide mean­ing. It sim­ply presents the raw sta­tis­ti­cal data on word fre­quen­cies, and allows you to do the inter­pre­ta­tion. Ama­zon links each word in the con­cor­dance to a search results page list­ing the indi­vid­ual occur­ances of the word in the text, which is use­ful, and then fur­ther links the indi­vid­ual occru­ance list­ings to the loca­tion within the text.
With this strong and grow­ing mix of fea­tures, Ama­zon both trans­lates the book­store expe­ri­ence on-line, and also aug­ments that expe­ri­ence with capa­bil­i­ties avail­able only in an infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment. The ques­tion is whether Ama­zon will con­tinue to expand the capa­bil­i­ties it offers for book buy­ing under the basic men­tal model of “being in a book­store”, or if a new direc­tion is ahead?
Here’s a screen­shot of the Text Stats for DJ Spooky’s Rhythm Sci­ence.
Text Stats:

Here’s a screen shot of the Con­cor­dance fea­ture.

Comment » | Modeling, User Experience (UX)

Mental Models and the Semantics of Disaster

November 4th, 2005 — 3:47pm

A few months ago, I put up a post­ing on Men­tal Mod­els Lotus Notes, and Resililence. It focused on my chronic inabil­ity to learn how not to send email with Lous Notes. I posted about Notes, but what led me to explore resilience in the con­text of men­tal mod­els was the sur­pris­ing lack of acknowl­edge­ment of the scale of hur­ri­cane Kat­rina I came across at the time. For exam­ple, the day the lev­ees failed, the front page of the New York Times dig­i­tal edi­tion car­ried a gigan­tic head­line say­ing ‘Lev­ees Fail! New Orleans floods!’. And yet no one in the office at the time even men­tioned what hap­pened.
My con­clu­sion was that peo­ple were sim­ply unable to accept the idea that a major met­ro­pol­i­tan area in the U.S. could pos­si­bly be the set­ting for such a tragedy, and so they refused to absorb it — because it didn’t fit in with their men­tal mod­els for how the world works. Today, I came across a Resilience Sci­ence post­ing titled New Orleans and Dis­as­ter Soci­ol­ogy that sup­ports this line of think­ing, while it dis­cusses some of the inter­est­ing ways that seman­tics and men­tal mod­els come into play in rela­tion to dis­as­ters.
Quot­ing exten­sively from an arti­cle in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion titled Dis­as­ter Soci­ol­o­gists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hur­ri­canes, but Will Pol­icy Mak­ers Lis­ten? the post­ing calls out how nar­row slices of media cov­er­age dri­ven by blurred seman­tic and con­tex­tual under­stand­ings, inac­cu­rately frame social responses to dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tions in terms of group panic and the implied break­down of order and soci­ety.
“The false idea of post­dis­as­ter panic grows partly from sim­ple seman­tic con­fu­sion, said Michael K. Lin­dell, a psy­chol­o­gist who directs the Haz­ard Reduc­tion and Recov­ery Cen­ter at Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity at Col­lege Sta­tion. ‘A reporter will stick a micro­phone in someone’s face and ask, ‘Well, what did you do when the explo­sion went off?’ And the per­son will answer, ‘I pan­icked.’ And then they’ll pro­ceed to describe a very log­i­cal, ratio­nal action in which they pro­tected them­selves and looked out for peo­ple around them. What they mean by ‘panic’ is just ‘I got very fright­ened.’ But when you say ‘I pan­icked,’ it rein­forces this idea that there’s a thin veneer of civ­i­liza­tion, which van­ishes after a dis­as­ter, and that you need out­side author­i­ties and the mil­i­tary to restore order. But really, peo­ple usu­ally do very well for them­selves, thank you.‘
Men­tal mod­els come into play when the arti­cle goes on to talk about the ways that the emer­gency man­age­ment agen­cies are orga­nized and struc­tured, and how they approach and under­stand sit­u­a­tions by default. With the new Home­land Secu­rity par­a­digm, all inci­dents require com­mand and con­trol approaches that assume a ded­i­cated and intel­li­gent enemy — obvi­ously not the way to man­age a hur­ri­cane response.
“Mr. Lin­dell, of Texas A&M, agreed, say­ing he feared that pol­icy mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton had taken the wrong lessons from Kat­rina. The employ­ees of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity, he said, ‘are mostly drawn from the Depart­ment of Defense, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, and from police depart­ments. They’re firmly com­mit­ted to a command-and-control model.’ (Just a few days ago, Pres­i­dent Bush may have pushed the process one step fur­ther: He sug­gested that the Depart­ment of Defense take con­trol of relief efforts after major nat­ural dis­as­ters.)
“The habits of mind cul­ti­vated by mil­i­tary and law-enforcement per­son­nel have their virtues, Mr. Lin­dell said, but they don’t always fit dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tions. ‘They come from orga­ni­za­tions where they’re deal­ing with an intel­li­gent adver­sary. So they want to keep infor­ma­tion secret; ‘it’s only shared on a need-to-know basis. But emer­gency man­agers and med­ical per­son­nel want infor­ma­tion shared as widely as pos­si­ble because they have to rely on per­sua­sion to get peo­ple to coöper­ate. The prob­lem with putting FEMA into the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity is that it’s like an organ trans­plant. What we’ve seen over the past four years is basi­cally organ rejec­tion.‘
If I read this cor­rectly, mis­aligned orga­ni­za­tional cul­tures lie at the bot­tom of the whole prob­lem. I’m still curi­ous about the con­nec­tions between an organization’s cul­ture, and the men­tal mod­els that indi­vid­u­als use. Can a group have a col­lec­tive men­tal model?
Accoridng to Col­lec­tive Men­tal State and Indi­vid­ual Agency: Qual­i­ta­tive Fac­tors in Social Sci­ence Expla­na­tion it’s pos­si­ble, and in fact the whole idea of this col­lec­tive men­tal state is a black hole as far as qual­i­ta­tive social research and under­stand­ing are concerned.

2 comments » | Modeling, The Media Environment

Mental Models: Additional Reading

September 6th, 2005 — 1:58pm

Some addi­tional read­ing on men­tal mod­els, cour­tesy of the Inter­ac­tion Design Encyclopedia.

Comment » | Modeling

Mental Models, Resilience, and Lotus Notes

September 5th, 2005 — 6:05pm

Sev­eral very unpleas­ant expe­ri­ences I’ve had with the Lotus Notes web­mail client dur­ing the past few weeks have brought up some ques­tions about men­tal mod­els; specif­i­cally how users respond to chal­lenges to their men­tal mod­els, and how resilience plays a part in how changes to men­tal mod­els occur.
The IAWiki defines a men­tal model as, “a men­tal model is how the user thinks the prod­uct works.” This is a sim­pli­fied def­i­n­i­tion, but it’s ade­quate for the moment. For a deeper explo­ration, try Mar­tina Angela Sasse’s the­sis
Elic­it­ing and Describ­ing Users’ Mod­els of Com­puter Sys­tems.
In this case, the model and the chal­lenge are straight­for­ward. My men­tal model of the Notes web­mail client includes the under­stand­ing that it can send email mes­sages. The chal­lenge: the Lotus web­mail client can­not send email mes­sages — at least not as I expe­ri­ence it.
Here’s what hap­pens my men­tal model and my real­ity don’t match:

  1. I log in to my email client via Fire­fox — the only browser on the Mac that ren­ders the Notes web­mail client vaguely cor­rectly — (I’m using web­mail because the full Notes client requires VPN, mean­ing I’m unable to access any­thing on my local net­work, or the inter­net, which, inci­den­tally, makes it dif­fi­cult to seem like a cred­i­ble inter­net con­sul­tant.) again, because it’s frozen and crashed my browser in the past ten minutes.
  2. I real­ize I need to respond to an email
  3. I do not remem­ber that the Notes web­mail client is inca­pable of send­ing out email messages
  4. I open a new mes­sage win­dow, and com­pose a chunk of semi-grammatical techno-corporate non-speak to com­mu­ni­cate a few sim­ple points in blame-retardant consultantese
  5. I attempt to send this email
  6. I am con­fronted with a cryp­tic error mes­sage via javascript prompt, say­ing some­thing like “We’re really sorry, but Domino sucks, so you can’t send out any mes­sages using your email client.”
  7. Over the span of .376 sec­onds, I move through suc­ces­sive states of sur­prise, con­fu­sion, com­pre­hen­sion, frus­tra­tion, anger, resent­ment, res­ig­na­tion, and malaise (actu­ally, mailaise is more accurate.)
  8. I swear: silently if clients are within earshot, out loud if not
  9. I switch to gmail, cre­ate a new mes­sage, copy the text of my mes­sage from the Notes web­mail win­dow to Gmail, and send the mes­sage to some eagerly wait­ing recipient
  10. I close the Notes web­mail client, and return to busi­ness as usual.
  11. I for­get that the Notes web­mail client can­not send email messages.

Despite fol­low­ing this same path three times per day, five days each week, for the past five weeks, (for a total of ~75 clear exam­ples), I am always sur­prised when I can’t send a mes­sage. I’m no expert on Learn­ing the­ory but nei­ther lack of atten­tion nor stub­born­ness explain why seventy-five exam­ples aren’t enough to change my model of how Notes works.
Dis­ci­plines includ­ing sys­tems the­ory, biol­ogy, and soci­ol­ogy use a con­cept called resilience. In any sta­ble sys­tem, “Resilience gen­er­ally means the abil­ity to recover from some shock, insult, or dis­tur­bance.” From an eco­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, resilience “is a mea­sure of the amount of change or dis­rup­tion that is required to trans­form a sys­tem.” The psy­cho­log­i­cal view empha­sizes “the abil­ity of peo­ple to cope with stress and cat­a­stro­phe.“
Appar­ently, the resilience of my model for email clients is high enough to with­stand con­sid­er­able stress, since — in addi­tion to the ini­tial cat­a­stro­phe of using Notes itself — seventy-five con­sec­u­tive exam­ples of fail­ure to work as expected do not equal enough shock, insult, and dis­tur­bance to my model to lead to a change my in under­stand­ing.
Notice that I’m using a work-around — switch­ing to Gmail — to achieve my goal and send email. In
Resilience Man­age­ment in Social-ecological Sys­tems: a Work­ing Hypoth­e­sis for a Par­tic­i­pa­tory Approach , Brian Walker and sev­eral oth­ers refine the mean­ing of resilience to include, “The degree to which the sys­tem expresses capac­ity for learn­ing and adap­ta­tion.” This accounts nicely for the Gmail work-around.
I also noticed that I’m rely­ing on a series of assump­tions — email clients can send mes­sages; Notes is an email client; there­fore, Notes can send mes­sages — that make it log­i­cal to use a well estab­lished model for email clients in gen­eral to antic­i­pate the work­ings of Notes web­mail in par­tic­u­lar. In new con­texts, it’s eas­ier to bor­row an exist­ing model than develop a new one. In short order, I expect I’ll change one of the assump­tions, or build a model for Notes web­mail.
Here’s a few ques­tions that come to mind:

  1. What fac­tors deter­mine the resilience of a men­tal model?
  2. How to mea­sure resiliency in men­tal models?
  3. What’s the thresh­old of recov­ery for a men­tal model?
  4. Put another way, what’s required to change a men­tal model?

Based on a quick review of the con­cept of resilience from sev­eral per­spec­tives, I’m com­fort­able say­ing it’s a valu­able way of look­ing at men­tal mod­els, with prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions for infor­ma­tion archi­tects.
Some of those impli­ca­tions are:

  1. Under­stand the rel­e­vance of exist­ing men­tal mod­els when design­ing new systems
  2. Antic­i­pate and plan the ways that users will form a men­tal model of the system
  3. Use design at mul­ti­ple lev­els to fur­ther the for­ma­tion of men­tal models
  4. Under­stand thresh­olds and resilience fac­tors when chal­leng­ing exist­ing men­tal models

From a broader view, I think it’s safe to say the appli­ca­tion of sys­tems the­ory to infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture con­sti­tutes an impor­tant area for explo­ration, one con­tain­ing chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties for user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers in gen­eral, and infor­ma­tion archi­tects in par­tic­u­lar.
Time to close this post before it gets too long.
Fur­ther read­ing:
Bio of Lud­wig Berta­lanffy, impor­tant con­trib­u­tor to Gen­eral Sys­tem The­ory.
Doug Cocks <a href=“> On Decon­struct­ing Com­plex Adap­tive Systems
Resilience Alliance
Garry Peterson’s blog Resilience Sci­ence

5 comments » | Modeling, User Experience (UX)

Concept Maps: Training Children to Build Ontologies?

May 31st, 2005 — 11:51am

Con­cept maps popped onto the radar last week when an arti­cle in Wired high­lighted a con­cept map­ping tool called Cmap. Cmap is one of a vari­ety of con­cept map­ping tools that’s in use in schools and other edu­ca­tional set­tings to teach chil­dren to model the struc­ture and rela­tion­ships con­nect­ing — well — con­cepts.
The root idea of using con­cept map­ping in edu­ca­tional set­tings is to move away from sta­tic mod­els of knowl­edge, and toward dynamic mod­els of rela­tion­ships between con­cepts that allow new kinds of rea­son­ing, under­stand­ing, and knowl­edge. That sounds a lot like the pur­pose of OWL.
It might be a stretch to say that by advo­cat­ing con­cept maps, schools are in fact train­ing kids to cre­ate ontolo­gies as a basic learn­ing and teach­ing method, and a vehi­cle for com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­plex ideas — but it’s a very inter­est­ing stretch all the same. As Infor­ma­tion Archi­tects, we’re famil­iar with the ways that struc­tured visu­al­iza­tions of inter­con­nected things — pages, top­ics, func­tions, etc. — com­mu­ni­cate com­plex notions quickly and more effec­tively than words. But most of the rest of the world doesn’t think and com­mu­ni­cate this way — or at least isn’t con­sciously aware that it does.
It seems rea­son­able that kids who learn to think in terms of con­cept maps from an early age might start using them to directly com­mu­ni­cate their under­stand­ings of all kinds of things through­out life. It might be a great way to com­mu­ni­cate the com­plex thoughts and ideas at play when answer­ing a sim­ple ques­tion like “What do you think about the war in Iraq?“
Author Nancy Kress explores this excact idea in the sci­ence fic­tion novel ‘Beg­gars In Spain’, call­ing the con­struc­tions “thought strings”. In Kress’ book, thought strings are the pre­ferred method of com­munca­tion for extremely intel­li­gent genet­i­cally engi­neered chil­dren, who have in effect moved to realms of cog­ni­tive com­plex­ity that exceed the struc­tural capac­ity of ordi­nary lan­guages. As Kress describes them, the den­sity and mul­ti­di­men­sional nature of thought strings makes it much eas­ier to share nuanced under­stand­ings of extremely com­plex domains, ideas, and sit­u­a­tions in a com­pact way.
I’ve only read the first novel in the tril­ogy, so I can’t speak to how Kress devel­ops the idea of thought strings, but there’s a clear con­nec­tion between the con­struct she defines and the con­cept map as laid out by Novak, who says, “it is best to con­struct con­cept maps with ref­er­ence to some par­tic­u­lar ques­tion we seek to answer or some sit­u­a­tion or event that we are try­ing to under­stand”.
Excerpts from the Wired arti­cle:
“Con­cept maps can be used to assess stu­dent knowl­edge, encour­age think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing instead of rote learn­ing, orga­nize infor­ma­tion for writ­ing projects and help teach­ers write new cur­ric­ula. “
“We need to move edu­ca­tion from a mem­o­riz­ing sys­tem and repet­i­tive sys­tem to a dynamic sys­tem,” said Gas­par Tarte, who is spear­head­ing edu­ca­tion reform in Panama as the country’s sec­re­tary of gov­ern­men­tal inno­va­tion.“
“We would like to use tools and a method­ol­ogy that helps chil­dren con­struct knowl­edge,” Tarte said. “Con­cept maps was the best tool that we found.”

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mSpace Online Demo

February 20th, 2005 — 2:48pm

There’s an mSpace demo online.

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Two Surveys of Ontology / Taxonomy / Thesaurus Editors

February 18th, 2005 — 2:46pm

While research­ing and eval­u­at­ing user inter­faces and man­age­ment tools for seman­tic struc­tures — ontolo­gies, tax­onomies, the­sauri, etc — I’ve come across or been directed to two good sur­veys of tools.
The first, cour­tesy of HP Labs and the SIMILE project is Review of exist­ing tools for work­ing with schemas, meta­data, and the­sauri. Thanks to Will Evans for point­ing this out.
The sec­ond is a com­pre­hen­sive review of nearly 100 ontol­ogy edi­tors, or appli­ca­tions offer­ing ontol­ogy edit­ing capa­bil­i­ties, put together by Michael Denny at You can read the full arti­cle Ontol­ogy Build­ing: A Sur­vey of Edit­ing Tools, or go directly to the Sum­mary Table of Sur­vey Results.
The orig­i­nal date for this is 2002 — it was updated July of 2004.

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